The Hudson Valley: A break from the Big Apple

New York State's Hudson Valley boasts one of the finest views in the Union, says David Usborne

I used to think that was true. But recently, I have been paying more attention to the landscapes on my doorstep. That has meant exploring north from the concrete and cement of Manhattan to all the rest of the vast Empire State. I have gone to Niagara Falls - an hour's flight away, but still within New York State's borders - and to the Adirondacks, which contain more wilderness areas than Yellowstone.

Today, I am barely two hours drive from the city and standing on a bluff on the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains at 3,000 feet. On a fine day, you can see five different states from here - New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Jersey. In the foreground is the Hudson river, a thin sliver of light stretching parallel to the march of the Catskills. Rising further to the east are the Berkshires in Massachusetts. This spot owes its fame to a hotel built in 1824 with grand verandas and cavernous ballrooms. Long since gone, the Catskill Mountain House was a favourite retreat of Manhattan's elite.

Your first glimpse of the Hudson Valley, however, won't be from here but through the wide window of a train. From Pennsylvania Station board an Amtrak express heading upriver towards Albany (the state capital) and beyond to points that include Buffalo, Montreal and Toronto. Find out which end of the train is which and, if you are facing forward, sit on the left of the train. Gaze out the window as the train hugs the Hudson River for almost all your journey. As the Catskills first come into view about an hour out of Manhattan, you will know that you're on one of the most scenic train rides anywhere in the world.

Two hours out of Manhattan is the small city of Hudson, sitting on the east bank of the river from which it borrowed its name. The town, founded by Quakers in 1783 as a whaling and merchant seaport (even though it lies 100 miles upstream), makes for a perfect jumping-off spot to explore the region, the Catskills and the Berkshires and all the rolling farmland in between that could almost be England but for the russet-red painted barns and slender grain silos that tell you incontrovertibly that you are in America. In Columbia County alone, where Hudson is the county seat, you can explore the picturesque small towns of Chatham - try the cheeses made by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company and stop by its Shaker Museum - as well as nearby Kinderhook, Ghent and Austerlitz. Or head south down Route 9G stopping at Olana, the country estate of the 19th Century landscape painter Frederick Church, and Bard College, a small university, with its stunning new arts centre built by the acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.

You could do much worse than to simply linger in Hudson. This was the first city to be chartered in America after the Revolution. Its main drag alone, Warren Street, is a living encyclopedia of American urban architecture. Emigrés from New York City and beyond have discovered its charms and set about renovating properties that were neglected during a period of depression in the seventies and eighties. Credit for this revival goes, in part, to the antique dealers who adopted Hudson a decade ago. Specialty shops, galleries and restaurants have also popped up. Need a gift? Stop by Marx Home, Lili and Loo, The Knotty Woodpecker or Naked. Eating? Drinking? Sample the Red Dot, Swoon and Ca Mea.

But before you head back to the big city, take a couple of hours to find that bluff where the Mountain House once stood. Ask any ranger for directions to the look-out as you drive through Catskill. It may no longer be the most famous view in America but it is surely still one of the finest.

The one-way fare on an Amtrak train from New York City to Hudson is $40 (£23). Enterprise car rental has an office in Hudson and will deliver a car to the station. The Inn at Hudson, Country Squire Inn and Union Street Guest House are recommended

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